Growth Management Act

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The Growth Management Act defines how jurisdictions must plan for and accommodate anticipated population growth, while protecting public trust resources. The implentation of the GMA results in a Comprehensive Plan that includes a system of Zoning and Municipal Codes. The GMA defers to the Shoreline Management Act in shorelines of the state. The GMA requires protection of a set of critical areas through Critical Areas Regulation, which is a foundational element of environmental regulation.


  • County-wide Planning Policies are required under GMA. These policies determine how planning is done, which in turn effects the development of comprehensive plan, zoning and code ammendments.
  • Municipal Research and Services Center has a summary of GMA.
    • pimarily code is in RCW 36.70A
    • Establishes 14 goals: Concentrated urban growth, Sprawl reduction, Regional transportation, Affordable housing, Economic development, Property rights, Permit processing, Natural resource industries, Open space and recreation, Environmental protection, Early and continuous public participation, Public facilities and services, Historic preservation, Shoreline management (as described under Shoreline Management Act.
    • Washington State Department of Commerce provides technical assistance and insures local plans are consistent with state law.
    • A critical outcome of GMA is designation of Natural Resource Lands (for agriculture, forestry and mining) to prevent adjacent land use from undermining these uses.
    • Jurisdictions must designate Critical Areas, defined as (a) Wetlands; (b) areas with a critical recharging effect on aquifers used for potable water; (c) fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas; (d) frequently flooded areas; and (e) geologically hazardous areas. RCW 36.70A.030. Jurisdictions are required to use Best Available Science in making decisions and sets a target of "No Net Loss of Structures, Functions and Roles"
    • Establishes the "primacy of the comprehensive plan" which includes: Land Use, Housing, Capital Facilities Plan, Utilities, Rural Development (counties only), Transportation, Economic Development, Parks and Recreation, Ports (where revenues exceeding $60 million). Optionally considers: Conservation, Solar Energy, Recreation, Subarea Plans (neighborhoods, rural villages, urban growth areas, tribal areas, etc.), Ports (where revenues range from $20 million to $60 million)
    • Must be coordinated with adjacent and overlapping jurisdictions.
    • Must address "essential public facilities" such as airports, transportation, schools, and prisons.
    • Must be updated every 8 years.
    • Zoning map and associated code is the regulatory tool created by the process (are there secondary products?).
    • Office of Financial Management generates population growth projections. The GMA procedures determines where that population should be directed. Counties set Urban Growth Areas in consultation with cities. RCW 36.70A.115. The legal actions of cities are constrained outside a UGA. The purpose of the UGA is to protect rural lands from development that precludes production of food or fiber.
      • The OFM projections come in high, medium and low versions, and a municipality appears to have discretion about what numbers they use.
    • The Growth Management Hearings Board resolves disputes over GMA, SMA or SEPA compliance. Challenges are heard by a hearings panel. The Governor may impose sanctions on Cities or Counties that don't comply with a GMHB ruling.
  • RCW 36.70A.172 requires use of "best available science" in establishing protections.

Agency Roles

Various state agencies provide resources or oversight of Comprehensive Plan updates. It is unclear that these oversight functions are substantive, in that there is not compelling reason to respond to agency concerns that have no local political consequence.

Other Analyses

  • Laschever 1998 washington growth management overview provides a legal assessment of the act.
    • Prior to the act jurisdications did a minimum of planning. The Act increased requirements to regulate state natural resources.
    • Private property takings are protected to some degree by the Washington State and federal constitutions. Washington Attorney General's Office provides guidelines to GMA jurisdications.
    • Plans are always prospective, and do not affect "vested rights" where permission for a development action has already been given.
    • Based on legal precedent, demonstrated potable water supply must precede building permit.
    • Development cannot cause transportation services to decline below a service level defined in the comprehensive plan.
    • There must be a capital facilities plan in place to support the population proposed under development (schools, sewer, water, etc.)
    • Development must not degrade ground water quality (RCW 36.70A.070(l))
  • Proponents of relaxing GMA control point to the declining affordability of market-rate housing (Rosenberg 2016).